Tuesday, February 17, 2009

The Mystic Arts of Getting a Literary Agent

During this month's "Love is Murder" conference in Chicago, I sat on a panel with several editors from different publishing houses. I was assigned this panel, presumably, because I spent several years as an editor, dealt with many authors and agents, and was able to offer some thoughts about editing, agents and how to get published. I wasn't surprised to hear that many people in the audience had much to learn about this process, yet I was surprised to hear some of my fellow panelists offering thoughts that were totally counterproductive when it comes to landing an agent. So in an effort to demystify a process that is often shrouded in darkness, here is a list of practical things you should--and should not--do when trying to get a literary agent:

--Always follow an agency's submission guidelines. This was a point contested by one of my LIM panelists. His reasoning? Bucking the guidelines will get you a quicker response. Of course that response for him, and for you, has been and will always be 'No'. If an agency's submission guidelines say not to email submissions, DO NOT email submissions. If they ask for double-spaced, 12-point font, send it in that format (even if you wrote it in single-spaced 10 point). Look at it like this: agencies receive literally thousands of submissions every year. By stating right off the bat you think you're above the rules, you're telling the agent you're going to be a pain in the butt. Not exactly the way you want to start a professional relationship, and an easy way to find yourself in the rejection pile, albeit quicker.

--Wait until the allotted time period ends before checking in. If the agency's guidelines say to wait 4-6 weeks for a response, feel free to send a (polite) follow up after that window expires. 

--DO NOT slag other authors in your query letter. Telling an agent how much more talented you are than Bestselling Author X is really just telling the agent how much of a bigger head you have than Next Submission in the Pile.

--It's fine, and even expected, for you to compare your work to other authors. Not in a derogatory sense (see previous item), but in a way that gives the agent a sense of who your audience is and how they might pitch it. Good: "I write layered mysteries in the vein of George Pelecanos." Bad: "I write layered mysteries in the vein of George Pelecanos, only better."

--You're the only one who cares what your mother thinks. I've read enough queries over the years to fairly ascertain that 100% of all mothers and fathers think their child's book is fantastic. Telling an agent this in your query letter does not speak to the quality of your manuscript.

--Write your query letter like good jacket copy. It shouldn't reveal too much, and it should leave the agent wanting to read more.

--Only include information in your query bio that pertains directly to the book itself. If you're writing a non-fiction proposal, include your credentials and make the case as to why you are the right person to write this particular book. If you're writing a novel, include any writing awards, advance quotes from notable authors, or story publications. What not to include: your resume.

--Unless the guidelines request it, never paste your manuscript/proposal in the body of an email. You know that friend who send you emails that seemingly go on forever and have you hitting the 'scroll down' key for hours? Well, multiply that by a thousand.

--You may be "the next great New York Times bestselling author," but that's dependent on factors well beyond you, me, your agent and often even your publisher to decide. Let your work speak for itself, and hope for the best.

--Don't sign up with the first agent who offers you representation just so you can say you have an agent, just like you wouldn't hire the very first employee to send you a resume. Take your time. Make sure this agent is the right one. Look the agent up on their website, or see their sales at publishersmarketplace.com. If your agent does not have any sales to a reputable publisher, let's just say the odds are not in your favor to be the first.

--If an agent offers you representation, you have every right to ask them for a list of recent sales. If they deny your request, think long and hard about why. Would you hire an employee who refused to offer any references?

--Don't waste your time by throwing your manuscript at the wall and hoping that it sticks. By sending out random queries to every agency in the book without researching what each agent represents, you're going to end up wasting a fistful of dough sending your cookbook proposal to agents who only represent literary fiction.

--Do not pay any fees to the agent upfront. Period. If the agent asks for money, they are not a real agent. Agents get paid on how much your work earns. You make money, then they make money.

--Research agents. There is far too much information out there for any author to be in the dark when searching for representation. Check out the aforementioned Publishers Marketplace. Other resources include Publishers Weekly, Literary Marketplace, and of course Google. If an agent offers to represent you, Google the crap out of him/her.

--Don't go chapter by chapter through Writers Market guides submitting to the 'A' section first, then 'B' then 'C' then so on. Compile a list, say your top 25 agents, and query them accordingly. Don't waste your time or money querying Apex Literary Agency (not a real agency) which hasn't sold a book since 1997.

--Blogging, Tweeting, Facebooking, Flickring and Friendraising is all well and good, but if it takes time away from your manuscript that is bad, bad, bad.

--Finishing a first draft is the easy part, it's how you revise that makes you a writer. Sending a first draft of your manuscript to an agent is like going on a first date without having showered in three days. Clean yourself up. Anybody can spit out 80,000 words, it's choosing the right 80,000 in the right order that will get you published.

--You might think submitting your manuscript on green paper written in red ink tied in a bow is pretty, but I can guarantee you the agent will not.

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Blogger Brenda Janowitz said...

GREAT post. I agree wholeheartedly with each piece of advice. I'm passing a link onto my students. Thanks so much for this, Jason!

11:22 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I also loved this. I would include "Don't write back and ask the agent why they rejected your query or partial." I can't believe the number of people who think agents have time for this. Requesting explanation on a full I can understand.

11:35 AM  
Blogger PJ Parrish said...

Good solid advice, Jason. If you don't mind, I would like to link to this entry for our Florida chapter MWA newsletter. We have Best of Blogs feature and I;m always trolling for good ones.

PJ Parrish

5:45 PM  
Blogger Jason Pinter said...

Thanks guys, hope it helps!

PJ - Absolutely, feel free to use it.

6:50 PM  
Blogger JV said...

This was incredibly helpful - thank you!

5:57 PM  
Blogger marie-jo said...

The best literary agent advice I have ever read. And I have read some ...


1:59 PM  

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